As we all know, the effects of pot are varied, vast and contradictory. It mellows you out, it induces paranoia, it gives you a buzz, lowers inhibitions and transmits that warm and fuzzy feeling its fans know all too well.
But for those pursuing creative endeavors, pot can offer you an extra-special gift: It could help spark abstract thinking, and its effects might help you connect seemingly unrelated ideas. So writers, you're in luck, as your craft thrives off such processes.
We're not saying that smoking pot will necessarily make you a better writer, or that those words you scribble while stoned are definitely brilliant, but we're saying that a little puff here or there might help you realize your potential. And these famous wordsmiths are some compelling proof:
Sagan was an established scientist and author who penned hundreds of scientific papers and books, including The Dragons of Eden, Broca's Brain and Pale Blue Dot. But the best of his creativity can be seen in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which he cowrote with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, along with narrating the show. Plenty of present-day stoners love the Cosmos reboot, enough to warrant a parody video.
Sagan's thoughts on pot: Not only did Sagan casually smoke marijuana, but he was also an advocate for legalization. He wrote an essay about his experiences on the drug under the alias "Mr. X," published in the 1971 book Marijuana Reconsidered. He had high praise for weed's effect on his appreciation for art and heightened pleasure during sex.
She might only have five novels under her belt, but Smith continues to receive accolades from critics. The young writer has found literary acclaim before the age of 40, especially with her debut White Teeth.
Smith's thoughts on pot: She jokes about it, saying that there's nothing wrong with a little liking for Mary Jane. Smith isn't a big smoker herself, but recognizes the good vibes it brings people.
A master of the horror genre, King has published 55 novels and received various awards. He's behind The Shawshank Redemption, Children of the Corn, The Shining, It and Carrie, along with more than a few adaptations. His work typically steers clear from gore and instead depends on plot twists to really build up suspense. Pro-tip: Smokers who get paranoid probably want to avoid watching a King movie while high.
King's thoughts on pot: King used to be a pretty heavy cannabis consumer, and in a 1980s interview with High Times, he gave his take on the drug: "I think that marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry."
Sontag published both nonfiction and fiction while using her medium to advocate for human rights, AIDS awareness and more. While her nonfiction essays on art first brought her attention, Sontag's fiction pushed the boundaries of the craft, such as her experimental short story The Way We Live Now.
Sontag's thoughts on pot: Sontag is credited with saying,"I think marijuana is much better than liquor. I think a society which is addicted to a very destructive and unhealthy drug — namely alcohol — certainly has no right to complain or be sanctimonious or censor the use of a drug which is much less harmful."
Hunter S. Thompson
The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas didn't even have to finish high school to become a successful writer. After his stint in the Air Force, he spent a year traveling with the Angels for his book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Surely he huffed more than just a couple of times while roaming the countryside.
Thompson's thoughts on pot: Outspoken and fearless, Thompson was upfront about his usage, even proclaiming his love for the drug. His basic staples for life included beer, ice, grapefruit and the ganja. Weed must have helped him hone his creative ideas.
Angelou helped pave the way for other minorities in literature. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a necessary read for anyone, as are all her other works, given her talents for books, essays, poetry, plays and more. Angelou recited "In and Out of Time" in Tyler Perry's 2006 Madea's Family Reunion, and her appearance in the comedy pretty much felt like a hallucination.
Angelou's thoughts on pot: We don't have major evidence that Angelou smoked it up regularly in her later years, but it's reported that she "smoked with abandon" in her younger days.
You know, just the Shakespeare who's responsible for some of the greatest literature ever, like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth. He also casually created more than 2,200 words in his works, many of which have joined our everyday language. Shakespeare must have been on something when he decided that he was going to expand the lexicon to his liking.
Shakespeare's thoughts on pot: Nobody ever got to sit down Shakespeare and ask, "So, do you like weed?" But clues in history help support the claim that he did partake in some dope festivities. Between his sonnets that reference a "noted weed" and 17th century pipes with traces of cannabis being uncovered at his former home, it's pretty clear the guy was a stoner.
Dumas is the French author who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo and whose tales have been translated into almost 100 other languages. His work teems with adventure.
Dumas' thoughts on pot: Dumas was a member of a society dedicated to weed, Club des Hachichins. They loved experimenting, especially with hashish. Other high-profile Parisian writers who were part of the group included Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. The club meetings must have been the 19th century version of the basement scenes in That '70s Show.
The Brooklyn-based writer has had fiction published in the pages of the New Yorker and Harper's. In 2011, she won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for A Visit from the Goon Squad. The novel is unconventional in format, with an entire chapter being told through a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.
Egan's thoughts on pot: Egan is very upfront with the roles of drugs and Patti Smith in her youth. In a piece for the Guardian, she talks about climbing onto a rooftop and smoking her first joint. She didn't stop at pot — acid and mushrooms followed soon after. Well, she did grow up in San Francisco, so totally expected.
The Father of History, as Cicero dubbed him, was a Greek historian who shaped the historiographic narrative by taking a critical eye to how he collected his sources and info. Daddy of the Past is responsible for Histories, the founding work of history in Western literature. For someone so vital in recording history, apparently some his stories were also debunked as made up. Wonder if it was the weed talking.
Herodotus' thoughts on pot: Herodotus knew what was up. He was the first to reference pot in the Western world, and wrote about Scythians burning some hemp to create a vapor that would get them transported and howling (see: faded). Father of Time must have partaken in the recreational activity, for research in the name of historical accuracy, of course.
Having writer's block? Smoke a joint. These writers are proof enough that weed will help you achieve creativity nirvana.
A woman at the dispensary searches for something called "Green Crack." She tells me this strain is ideal for writers. There are a few great strains, but Green Crack would be the best.
Marijuana is legal for recreational use in Colorado. There are some restrictions and other funky laws that tag along, but the average Colorado citizen can avail herself of the services provided by everyone's favorite green friend without going to a lot more trouble than it takes to buy a beer or a lottery ticket.
Yes, it's a little weird. You do go to a store that can only let so many people into the purchasing area at a time, so you might end up in a waiting room with (mostly normal) people and one guy in a mobility scooter who has peed himself. Yes, the strains of marijuana still have names like "Mantanuska Thunderfuck" and "ChemDawg Biodiesel." Yes, you can pay with a debit card, but only through a complicated, "cashless ATM" procedure. There's still a certain level of seedy charm to the whole thing. But ultimately, you can drive home with marijuana you purchased above-board, and if you get pulled over, so long as your dispensary bag is still stapled shut, everything is fine (if you work at an Office Depot in Colorado and wonder why you've had a sudden run on mini staplers, now you know).
For lots of Coloradoans, it's been nice, though not a huge lifestyle change. This hasn't traditionally been a state where it's difficult to come across marijuana, and medical marijuana has been going strong for a while.
Drugs can open your mind. But for me, that opening of the mind had a lot more to do with the people and places I saw, the things I heard, than it did with the chemical properties of a burning leaf.
Personally, my life didn't change much after the law did. I'm not one for drugs. The most significant difference in my life with the legalization, and not one to be sneezed at, was the ability to walk downtown areas without having some guy ask if you would sign a petition to legalize marijuana. I complained long and hard about the ineffectiveness of these goons, but I guess they did it. Or someone did, anyway. And I hope they are enjoying the sweet, sometimes harsh, taste of victory.
Let's talk about what this has to do with writing.
There's any number of stories out there about creative people doing creative things with the aid of marijuana. Jay-Z. Jon Stewart. Steve Jobs. Brian Wilson. Oh, and the writers. Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Stephen King. Even Maya Angelou.
What surprised me most was a recent-ish article about Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series. It's a good profile, and Child comes off as charming, especially when he points out with true humor and humility that people are always looking for the next Jack Reacher book, not the next Lee Child joint. But the big reveal in the article: Child says he's been smoking marijuana 5 nights a week for the last 44 years.
Okay, it's one thing for your Hunter S. Thompson's to smoke. The man wrote a book about a drug-fueled drive across the desert that both horrified and intrigued my younger self. I'm convinced he invented drugs just so he'd have something new to occupy his afternoons. The inclusion of marijuana in his process is a given.
But Lee Child? This is a guy with an impressively steady output. His books are super popular, and he shares a lot of rabid fans with the likes of Bill O'Reilly (I have an inside line on this knowledge). The guy writes successful books, puts out multiple titles a year, and his main character is a straight-laced, militaristic hero type who would sooner use the word "joint" when he talks about popping a bad guy's shoulder out of socket than he would to talk about mind-altering substances.
As an aspiring writer, I'm willing to do a lot of things to improve my game. Pretty much anything, really. Different techniques, regiments of pens, lighting schemes, getting up 20 minutes earlier or 30 minutes later. Especially the 30 minutes later part. If I hear David Sedaris uses a certain kind of notebook, I take a look at it on Amazon in hopes that maybe it's cheap (it is not) and that maybe just the tiniest bit of doing what he does will transfer his talent to me (it does not).
Like a lot of writers, I use caffeine. I don't drink coffee. I abuse caffeine. Abuse it with the giddy aptitude of a teenager abusing himself during the Big Change. I drink alcohol. Not so much as a writing aid. Socially, and rarely, every few blue moons or so,to facilitate a vomit session on a country club patio.
Anyway, there are a lot of little things that writers try to get better. To write better. And if one of those things is now legal, and if a good number of the cool kids AND the squares are doing it... is there a strong reason not to try it? Or, more to the point, test it out?
Why Am I The Right Person?
For starters, it's legal for me. Which means I can write about it.
Second, I'm not a weed guy. I don't have any sort of agenda or reason to pretend that it's awesome when it's not. I don't know anything about the benefits of hemp rope or any of that, and the argument of America's Founding Fathers growing weed does nothing for me. They also probably used slaves to cultivate it, so the decision-making is questionable there.
If weed sucks as a writing tool, I'll be honest and say it sucks. If it's awesome, I'll tell you, and maybe you'll have to plan a writer's retreat out west. I hope it succeeds because that'd be great, but I suspect it won't. That's the extent of my bias. Hope versus pessimism, which is a distillation of my normal state.
Apology and Drug Content Warning
I will talk about marijuana use here. This was all done in the legal privacy of my home, 100% compliant with the law, and I never worked or operated machinery while intoxicated. Well, unless an Xbox counts as machinery. However, I'm fairly certain that the Xbox was designed specifically to be operated while high, and good luck convincing me otherwise.
Let's keep in mind that I'm not endorsing any illegal behavior here. If smoking is illegal where you are, then, you know, just like any crime, you'll have to weigh the consequences and benefits and make your own decision.
If there are any folks under age out there, I will also say a little something. I'm a product of the D.A.R.E. system, which was all about telling kids how horrible drugs are. It's a program that most kids of the 80's and 90's remember, and recently I found out it had an abysmal success rate. My personal theory, D.A.R.E. wasn't very honest with us. I was led to believe that a hit of marijuana would cause me to go into a fugue where I would murder a cat and then eat a sandwich made out of my own face.
Look, that's not going to happen. But if you start using drugs or drinking when you're young, and if you keep doing it, everyone around you will know it when you're 25.
Now that we've got all that out of the way, I have four tests. It's pretty tough to plan objective tests for art. So I tried to cover a few different areas and ideas about art and the process of making art. I'll do each test high, and I'll do each test 100% sober, see which yields better results.
Please excuse me for calling this art.
For the tests taken while high, I took 5 or 6 hits total from 2 different vapor pens. These are delightful, disposable devices that are like electronic cigarettes. You take a hit, the end lights up, and when you breathe out there's just the tiniest bit of vapor, like breathing out on a cold day.
I bought two pens with different sativa strains. The two basics marijuana types you'll find at the shops are indica and sativa, and then you'll see some blends of the two. I told the nice lady at the shop about my project, and she let me know that sativa was absolutely the way to go, that I'd feel a little high but there would be no cloudiness.
Test One: Motivation
Let's be honest. Sometimes the hardest part of writing is...writing. That's a gross oversimplification, grosser than the grossest ghost in Ghostbusters, which is either Slimer eating all those hot dogs or that rotting corpse driving the taxi.
My normal method is the Put On Your Sweats method. Something I came up with from coaching runners, the premise is that you don't have to go for a run today, but you DO have to put on your sweats and walk your ass to the end of the block. Most times, if you get there, you'll decide to go ahead and run. It's that part where you move from the couch to the road that's hardest.
The writing equivalent, I'll go to a coffee shop or get set up at home, get everything out, put pen to paper. I don't have to finish anything or go any further, but most times I'll keep going once I'm that far.
The test works like this:
During a timed 5-minute period, I have two options. Start writing or watch Cosmos on Netflix. I picked that program because it seems like something I would enjoy while high.
For the 5 minutes, I'll tally how many times I decide I'd prefer to watch Cosmos and how many times I'd prefer to start writing this column. My computer is in front of me with the cursor blinking, Cosmos is ready to go on the TV with a button press.
Results: Sober, I only went for writing. I was ready to write. I figured that the infinite Cosmos would be there when I finished.
High, I tallied my thoughts. A decision to write twice, Cosmos seven times, and a third category I created, "Do Nothing" twice. Cosmos did have a strong edge in that I could watch it from the couch, which sounded like a great idea at the time. I also made a couple of arguments in favor of Cosmos, including "It's a spacetime odyssey," which, it turns out, is the tagline under the show's title.
Conclusion: The results of this test, would weed motivate me to write, came out strongly in the negative. Sober takes the category. Not a big surprise. Weed isn't exactly known for being a strong motivator. In fact, I even cruised over to the Phish forums when I was looking up advice for this column. A member asked whether or not it was a good idea to smoke before he wrote a paper that was due the next day. The advice, FROM THE PHISH FORUM, was a level-headed answer to write sober, then reward yourself with a high after you finished.
There aren't a lot of advice questions I would ask of the Phish forum, but in this case, I think it might be a good place to connect with an expert. If the Phish forum advises against drug use, then I have to count that as a hard strike against marijuana in this situation.
I'm not someone who usually requires a creative boost. I'm not bragging here. Not saying my ideas are good. Simply that I have them. I keep a notebook of what I consider my dumbest ideas in case I win the lottery or become a powerful man. These ideas include a video game called Noah's AnARKy, where you play as Noah, who has to team up with a talking bear to kill two of every animal. There's also an idea in there for a service that provides a weirdo that can be rented, and this weirdo will liven up social events such as weddings or house parties by being, well weird. Finally, there's a proposed decree that we should retire the name "Rhinoceros" in favor of the name "Rhinosaurus," pronounced "rye-no-sore-us."
Again, these aren't good ideas, just ideas that may illustrate why I don't really feel the "mind-expansion" portion of drugs is something I'm in desperate need of.
To test how creative I'm feeling, I'll use this random topic generator to come up with 3 topics, each of which I'll write on for 3 minutes. I'll do it once sober, once high. Is my mind expanded? Am I more creative?
Results: In terms of pure production, you can see the sober text (bottom sheet) is tighter and more abundant. From the high attempt, the highlight was probably a question about the art on the side of Chinese food boxes, the red dragon stuff, and whether there was anything like that in China or not. Sober, the biggest question was why they bothered with all the cult stuff in Temple Of Doom just to have child labor for a mine. I mean, it's terrible, but you don't have to do the whole cult thing to enslave children. You can just sort of decide kid labor is the way to go.
If I were to take these writing prompts and say which had more usable content, the sober attempts were a lot better. I could pull something out of each topic that's worth exploring. High? Well, one topic (Famous World War II Spies) resulted in multiple attempts at a dick joke, which I did pull off. But there was some serious heavy lifting. That's not the joke, by the way.
I WILL say I did get a lot of laughs from the high attempt, and if you had the right kind of dorks such as myself, getting high, writing on randomly-generated topics for three minutes and sharing your work would be a pretty decent get-together for people of the pen.
I knew a young lady who was training for a marathon, and before her long runs, which she found boring, she would get stoned. She claimed this allowed her mind to drift and made the whole experience pretty painless.
I'm a big editor. If something of mine sees the light of day, it's been edited several times. And while editing is important, it's something that I wish was easier to slog through. It can be tedious to go through a draft the sixth time.
Can I effectively edit while high? Or even more effectively?
For this test I pulled a page from a project I'm working on. Full disclosure, it's not a heavy project. It's a story that takes off on the movie 3 Ninjas, and it's written from the dad's perspective. I always thought it would be strange to be a father who suddenly finds his boys are karate experts who regularly fist fight ADULTS.
Results: I timed each attempt, and they were pretty darn close. Sober, I got through the page a minute faster. So over time, that'd be a big gain. It's a minute, but it's also an extra 25%.
I also counted the number of changes I made. High, I made 73, while sober I made 61. Which is pretty similar, especially considering the nature of the test going over two different pages that may or may not need as many edits.
How did I feel about the corrections?
High, I felt pretty disconnected from what I was doing. I could edit a page, but only line to line. It was hard to keep track of what I was doing. The context was lost. At one point I came across a section where I'd badly copied and pasted something, and I couldn't deal with that whatsoever.
Sober, it was a lot easier to keep the entirety of the previous page in my head. To edit with more context of the larger piece as opposed to what was immediately in front of me.
Sober wins this one. Although if a person were doing line edits, someone who is used to being high might be reasonably effective.
Test: Clerical Skills
Sometimes the life of a writer is a lot of clerical stuff. Typing, inputting edits, emails. There are a lot of tasks that don't require a ton of thought. It wouldn't be such a bad thing to turn off the brain just a bit while the body did this work for me. Sort of like having my own robot who lives inside my skin. Except way less disgusting and terrible than that idea. In fact, scratch that idea from your mind. That's just an awful concept.
The test is to type up a handwritten page from my notebook. After doing it once sober and once high, I'll check for errors, record the time, and discuss whether or not it was a slog.
Results: High, I typed a page in 3 minutes, 52 seconds. Sober, it was 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Close enough there.
In terms of errors, I made 7 errors while high, 3 while sober. A difference, certainly, although while high I felt less need to correct errors I knew I was making. It was all about the typing, which could be an advantage in a case like this. If the goal is to type, you can type, and the errors made are easy to catch and rectify later.
The biggest difference: while sober I added new lines or changed the text just a bit here and there. The type-up served as a second draft opportunity, which is a plus for me. If the time is similar but I've added and edited, there's a distinct benefit to sobriety there.
Weed did not improve my motivation to write, my creativity, my editing skills or my clerical skills. As a writing tool, weed batted 0-for-4.
Before someone out there gets upset, let me reiterate a few things in one short phrase: Weed didn't work for ME.
It might work for you. It certainly works for many, many other creative people, or at least it's something they feel is beneficial or essential to their process. I may have blown it and gotten entirely too high, gone beyond a working high. I'd lend credence to that theory based on the fact that I consumed two of these "donuts" which came in a strange, foreign-born box of powders. Just add water to make 4 gelatinous mounds of hate. Then decorate with the provided sprinkles.
While the smoking was a failure in terms of productivity, did it expand my mind in any significant way? Yes. Sort of.
As an explanation, let me put it this way:
I did a thing.
As a writer, something that I'd share with other writers is that it's important to do stuff. Get out and do something you haven't done, or go somewhere you haven't gone. Even if it's a weird thrift store in town or an outdoor trail, or the tourist trap that you've never gotten around to if you live in a big city.
A different experience here and there helps. If you go to the Empire State Building, you'll overhear a snatch of dialogue between tourists for a story you're working on. If you hit that thrift store, maybe you'll find a beloved object that can become a beloved object and touchstone in your newest piece. If you buy weed from the dispensary, you might not do a lot of good while you're high, but maybe you have an idea for a story about a rogue Office Depot employee selling mini staplers in a van outside the dispensary. Maybe you notice that the man who peed himself in his mobility scooter is piloting a scooter called MegaStar or Sprinter. Maybe you see something, anything you wouldn't see if you stayed in your comfort zone, which for most of us, is home.
Try a 5K this week. Maybe next week go to a music festival. Maybe the week after that you go to a church service. Even just entering your office building from a different side is something. Whatever you do, it's not just about what you do, it's about the stuff that surrounds that new thing and the way you, as a writer, experience it.
Weed did expand my mind, but not in the traditional sense. It expanded my mind to include some real-life touchstones that I wouldn't have experienced if I went to Gordon's Liquor again instead of the weed dispensary. I wouldn't have been on the hunt for "Green Crack." I wouldn't have anticipated the munchies and purchased bizarre, DIY donuts. I sure as hell wouldn't have EATEN those abominations, no matter how many sprinkles they had, if I'd been in my right mind.
Drugs can open your mind. But for me, that opening of the mind had a lot more to do with the people and places I saw, the things I heard, than it did with the chemical properties of a burning leaf.
Oh, and also, if we're talking mind expansion, I finally got to watch Cosmos after I finished the tests. I was very correct about watching that show while high. Very, very correct.